House pushes lame-duck members out of offices

The U.S. Capitol dome is covered with scaffolding as it is rebuilt, November 4, 2014
The U.S. Capitol dome is covered with scaffolding as it is rebuilt, November 4, 2014 McClatchy

Retiring Rep. Jim Moran isn’t out of office yet, but he’s already out of his office.

Like other members of the House of Representatives who either lost their election bids or decided to call it a career, Moran, D-Va., has already had to vacate his spacious digs in the Rayburn House Office Building for more egalitarian accommodations tucked away in Rayburn’s basement.

“It’s something out of a Dilbert cartoon,” said Moran, who’s leaving the House after more than 20 years. “It’s not what we’ve been used to. . . . It’s a little humbling. It’s probably good for the soul, but not for the ego.”

Welcome to the Departing Member Center, the final office space for lame-duck lawmakers who will exit the House in January. Leaving lawmakers, no matter how senior, had to pack up years of belongings and mementos to make way for incoming members.

While members of the 114th Congress’ freshman class giddily played a lottery to win office assignments, departing lawmakers packed up and trudged to converted banquet rooms in the Rayburn basement, where office economy greeted them.

“It’s a cube farm,” Moran said of his space.

They’re “workstations,” insists the House chief administrative officer – 69 stations, each with a desk, two chairs, a phone and a computer.

“It’s tight, but we’re making it work,” said 83-year-old retiring Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., who packed, donated or discarded 30 years’ worth of material before retreating to Rayburn B337 for his final days in the House.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., who’s leaving the House after a failed Senate run, had a glow in his eyes as he reminisced recently about the high ceilings and roominess of the Cannon House Office Building office he left behind.

“We had plenty of space for everybody, 10 to 11 employees and me,” Gingrey said. “I had a big, spacious office and everybody had a nice cubicle and desktop computer. It was nice.”

Now Gingrey sits at workstation No. 47 – “I don’t know what’s the significance of that,” he said – when he’s not on the House floor voting, or at the House gym escaping workstation No. 47.

“You’ve got a chair, a computer and a desk, and you’ve got members all around you,” said Gingrey, who served six terms in the House. “It’s a stark realization that there’s nothing more former than a former member of Congress.”

Some leaving lawmakers, such as retiring Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., are taking a pass on the Departing Members Center.

“I’m not going over there,” said Hastings, who’s been in the House for two decades and chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. “I’m still a committee chair until the end of the year and still have an office in the committee.”

While the moving-out process in the House occurs while the chamber is still in session, the Senate employs a more leisurely process. Senators who lost or retired can remain in their offices until midnight the day before swearing-in next month, according to the Senate Rules Committee.

Senate office space is assigned based on seniority, a process that can take months, because all senators have the right to pick new offices.

Over in the House, the uprooting process from Capitol Hill has been an emotional one for several lawmakers. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, choked back tears Thursday as he ushered his last defense bill through the House and fellow lawmakers paid tribute to him.

That tearful moment was a far cry from the day he and Moran were moved out of their offices, Moran recalled.

“I’m talking to Buck and a guy comes in and rips his name plaque off the wall, pulls out his computer and takes down his TV,” Moran said. “I said ‘Jeez, isn’t that rude to do that for a guy who’s been here 38 years?’ The guy says ‘Don’t worry, congressman, we just did the same thing to you.’”